Ukraine and Poland’s Message of Reconciliation: ‘We Forgive and Ask Forgiveness’

COMMENTARY: The words spoken this month by Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kjiv, at a joint event marking the 80th anniversary of the Volhynia massacre, were carefully chosen for their historical resonance.

Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, the head of the Catholic bishops' conference of Poland, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kjiv, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and Polish President Andrzej Duda during commemorating the victims of the Volyn tragedy at the Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Lutsk, Ukraine July 9, 2023.
Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, the head of the Catholic bishops' conference of Poland, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kjiv, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and Polish President Andrzej Duda during commemorating the victims of the Volyn tragedy at the Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Lutsk, Ukraine July 9, 2023. (photo: Maxym Marusenko / AP)

KRAKÓW, Poland — While international attention on the Russian invasion of Ukraine was focused on during the NATO summit in Vilnius last week, an important reconciliation, both religious and political, took place in Warsaw, Poland, and Lutsk, Ukraine. The occasion was the 80th anniversary of the 1943 Volhynia (Volyn) massacre. President Volodymyr Zelensky and Polish President Andrzej Duda met in the western Ukrainian city of Lutsk. Gathered in a Catholic cathedral, both Catholic and Orthodox prelates led prayers for reconciliation and then both presidents lit candles to honor the victims of the massacre. That the ceremony was held in a church was already something of a gracious gesture from Zelensky, who is Jewish.

The presidents jointly posted on Twitter: “Together we pay tribute to all the innocent victims of Volhynia! Memory unites us! Together we are stronger.” On his own website, Zelenskyy added: “We value every life, remember history, and defend freedom together.”

The Volhynia massacre was the work of Ukrainian nationalists, who saw in Hitler’s 1941 turn against Stalin the potential for Ukrainian independence from Moscow. They operated in Nazi-occupied Poland after 1941, cooperating with Nazi forces. In 1943 they launched a lethal attack against Polish villages. Poland puts the death toll as high as 100,000 and the atrocity remains a point of friction between Poland and Ukraine. There were reprisals by Poles against Ukrainians, with some 2,000 being killed.

Poland has been Ukraine’s most stalwart ally since the full-scale Russian invasion last year, providing military and humanitarian aid, as well as receiving millions of refugees into their own homes, all without recourse to refugee camps. It is all the more remarkable given that a century ago, in the aftermath of World War I and the return of Polish independence, Ukrainians and Poles were at war, another painful chapter in Slavic history.

AP
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Polish President Andrzej Duda during commemorating the victims of the Volyn tragedy at the Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Lutsk, Ukraine July 9, 2023 (Photo: Maxym Marusenko)Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto

The reconciliation in Lutsk is, in part, a consequence of the Russian invasion. With Russia a lethal presence in Ukraine, and Poland having only liberated itself from Moscow’s domination in 1989, both Poles and Ukrainians see afresh the need to deepen their reconciliation in the face of a common threat.

The reconciliation was not only a political act. It was grounded in the Christian injunction to be merciful and to seek mercy.

Before the meeting in Lutsk, the patriarch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kjiv, traveled to Warsaw for a meeting with Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference. The two archbishops, representing their respective episcopates, signed a joint document of reconciliation

In the subsequent days, Archbishops Shevchuk and Gądecki traveled to Ukraine together for memorial Masses. The principal celebrant of the Mass of reconciliation in Lutsk was Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, apostolic nuncio in Ukraine.

Metropolitan Epiphanius of Kjiv, head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, also participated in the memorial prayers in Lutsk. Ukraine is a majority Orthodox country.

“Today, here, around the throne of God in Lutsk, we hear, as believers, how heaven and earth, the living and the dead say to each other with one voice: we forgive and ask for forgiveness!” said Archbishop Shevchuk.

The words were carefully chosen for their historic resonance. In 1965, the Polish bishops, during the final session of the Second Vatican Council, addressed letters to various national episcopates, inviting them to Poland in 1966 for the millennium anniversary of Poland’s baptism in 966. The millennium was the centerpiece of the religious and cultural resistance to communism led by the indomitable primate of Poland, Blessed Stefan Wyszynski.

Cardinal Wyszynski and the other Polish bishops, including Archbishop Karol Wojtyła of Kraków, signed a powerful letter, drafted in German, by Archbishop Bolesław Kominek of Wrocław. It addressed the horrors of the Second World War and the devastation of the Nazi occupation of Poland. It included the (in)famous words: “We forgive and ask forgiveness.”

Famous, because that letter is now a powerful symbol that reconciliation is possible, even after the greatest atrocities. The message of divine mercy, planted in Poland between World War I and World War II, had become a gift from Poland to the healing of Europe.

Infamous, because at the time the Polish bishops were not supported by their own people in this regard. A majority of Poles were not willing to forgive Germans, much less ask forgiveness. Poland lost 20% of its population during the war. After the war, it was common in Poland to write “germany” in all lowercase letters, to reflect that their mortal enemy was no longer worthy of respect. 

The Polish bishops came under fierce criticism from their own people, and the communist regime used the letter against the Church in propaganda for years to come. Reconciliation takes courage, and the Polish bishops, led by Cardinal Wyszynski, had that courage in 1966.

Conflict and killing has returned to the Slavic lands. This reconciliation in a war-torn land was between Poles and Ukrainians, not Ukrainians and Russians. But the seeds of reconciliation can bear fruit in unexpected ways. In future “we forgive and ask forgiveness” may resound again.

An apartment building stands damaged after a Russian attack in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

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